Saturday, April 23, 2022

Life and death on the sand dunes

Yesterday Meidad and I ventured out deep into the desert for fieldwork. We are completing a large-scale project mapping breeding birds for our atlas. We both worked in the Agur Sands NR, which is in fact the very extralimital extension of the Sahara sand belt that stretches across Africa into Sinai and the western Negev.

The habitat includes mobile sand dunes dotted with some bushes, and the valley floors are coated with a layer of Loess soil where there's a bit more plant productivity. Admittedly, sand dunes aren't the richest desert habitat for breeding birds in Israel. However, it is an important habitat for some threatened breeding species (more in these below), especially after good winter rains, as we had this past winter. Sandy habitats are certainly a biodiversity hotspot for psammophile organisms such as rodents and reptiles. Walking across the pure sand dunes in the early morning, it is always impressive to see how much nocturnal activity there was - every afternoon the wind swipes the sand dunes clean. Don't know what happened to my phone camera, however I quite like this monochromatic effect... In this photo there are tracks of Crowned Leafnose Snake (Lytorhynchus diadema), several gerbiles, jerboa and many beetles.

Nidua Fringe-fingered Lizard (Acanthodactylus scutellatus) - must be a pregnant female:

Any guesses what this is?

The most dominant breeding bird was Mediterranean Short-toed Lark. These sandy habitats are very important for this threatened species in Israel, especially when plant productivity is relatively high following good winter rainfall. Indeed, I had them in very good density, and their amazing song filled the sky - they are fantastic mimics. Here this male includes Crested Lark in his song, while another flies by calling:

They were busy breeding, including feeding recently-fledged young:

These are three youngsters:

I was alerted by a local Brown-necked Raven about the presence of a raptor - the raven was harassing a migrant Montagu's Harrier that had just caught prey, most likely a recently-fledged Mediterranean Short-toed Lark - life for one, death for another.

Another montys, a female, cruising over the sand dunes hoping to snatch some breakfast before another day of migration:

This certainly isn't prime habitat for terrestrial migrants, but migration here never stops and migrants can be found sheltering even in unhospitable habitats. Migration was in full swing and very evident both up in the air and on the ground. I flushed a Corn Crake off a random sand dune, my first for the season - good to see one alive and well...

There was really good movement of aerial insectivores - swifts, swallows and bee-eaters.

Pallid Swifts

Barn Swallow

Oh, those beautiful European Bee-eaters. Which version do you prefer - the first with all individuals aligned?

Or the second version with one individuals preening and facing the opposite direction?

Buntings, pipits, chats, warblers - so very good. I also had six Pale Rockfinches flying through. 

Eastern Orphean Warbler

Ortolan Bunting

On the way out I surprised a large Desert Monitor sunning itself on my track - male by the contrating colouration:

eBird checklist here.

Unfortunately, the way out was longer than expected as I got stuck trying to climb a track climbing up an extremely tall sand dune. After a couple of hours of failed attempts to free ourselves from the sand, we received help from a passing convoy of friendly ATV'ers. Thank you Yossi et al!

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Just another day in the office

This morning I went out to get some fieldwork done in the northern Negev. We're working there with INPA at a new nature reserve, Loess Plains NR, mapping breeding birds. Most of the reserve is pretty flat Loess plains. My section this morning flanked the Besor River, the main watercourse of the northern Negev, and quite a serious corridor of vegetation in contrast with the barren surroundings. 

I arrived at my section early in the morning, and quickly understood that this morning would be more about migrants than breeding birds. It was a cool and overcast morning after very hot weather yesterday, that must have affected migration. The air was full of birds and bird calls on the move - bee-eaters, hirundines, swifts, pipits, buntings, chats were hopping on tops of bushes - bliss. Down the wadi, the trees were full of birdsong - mainly Eastern Olivaceous Warblers and Turtle Dove. Hundreds of migrant warblers were ticking from the vegetation. Collared Flycatcher, Redstart, Thrush Nightingales, Wryneck - so much good stuff in there. In the distance I spotted a group of falcons hovering over the plains - mixed Red-foots and Lesser Kestrels.



Turtle Dove was present in very high density - there were tens of displaying males parachuting through the air. It was also heartwarming to see many flocks of migrants, some of several tens.

Hundreds of Steppe Buzzards roosted in the reserve by the wadi, especially on the shoulders.

When the air started to heat up they took off, and were joined by other raptors - Lesser Spotted, Short-toed and Booted Eagles, Pallid, Marsh and Montagu's Harriers.

Lesser Spotted Eagle

Booted Eagle

Receiving a warm welcome from the local Brown-necked Ravens:

Lovely 2cy male Montagu's Harrier

After the migrant flocks of European Bee-eaters left, the many breeding pairs became prominent. There was also a pair of Arabian Green Bee-eaters, so beautiful in the soft light.

Then I heard the familiar call of Blue-cheeked Bee-eater. For a few seconds the three species were sat together on the same bush. By the time I picked my camera up the blue-cheeked flew off; later on I relocated it on nearby wires. They have bred in the region in the past - I will follow up.

European (left) and Arabian Green (right) Bee-eaters

Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters

Towards the end a couple of small groups of pelicans went through:

Smaller than the mega flock I had over home on Saturday:

What a fantastic morning to be out. Thank you spring.

eBird checklist here.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Champions of the Flyway 2022

 After a short break at home, I returned to Eilat for Champions. I joined the organising team. Heading down to Eilat the weather was quite horrible with nasty winds blowing dust down the valley. Birds were struggling to migrate into the wind.

Baltic Gulls

Montagu's Harrier

After the traditional swap meeting and briefing at IBRCE, I went with Jonathan to KM20 saltpans. It was actually OK there with birds moving through, albeit with difficulty because of the wind. Nice to see the long-staying Lesser White-fronted Goose. 

Green Sandpipers


Many Ruff (and a Marsh Sand)

Curlew Sand with friends

Red-necked Phalaropes actually have legs!

flava Western Yellow Wagtail

On race day the wind dropped thankfully, though it was very hot. I headed up the Arava Valley very early for some desert larks. I checked nice desert habitats and found most necessary larks (Hoopoe, Arabian, Temminck's and Bar-tailed). They were all in song but only half-heartedly - it's very dry up there and I'm not sure they will actually breed. 

It was thrilling to bump into a few migrants in the middle of the desert, in total non-habitat, including this beautiful nominate Common Redstart:

Then I proceeded to Wadi Sha'alav. There were far fewer migrants there compared to my previous visit during the festival, yet it was productive with Levant Sparrowhawk, Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, quite many Tree Pipits and other stuff. There were lots of raptors on the ground - mainly Steppe Buzzards and Black Kites. 

Tree Pipit

Tawny Pipit

Back in Eilat, I quickly visited the Semicollared Flycatchers at Canada Gardens:

In the afternoon I met up with many groups congregating at KM20 saltpans, trying to help them be efficient and move on before the light runs out. Again, there was good bird movement.

The JBO Tits and their driver/chaperone Tzoor

Gull-billed Terns (jet in the background is in Aqaba airport)

Greater Sand-plover with Kentish Plover

Down at North Beach teams were frantic with last light efforts to add species to their lists. Lots of birds were flying around.


Western Reef-Heron adapting to beach life

I created a little eBird Trip Report of the birds I saw personally during race day - check it here.



It was very special to see all the kids who took part in this project. Really heartwarming, also the increasing number of women, and birders from different sectors. All those who participated, either physically at the race or through their contributions, are true Champions. Thickbills, Blackcaps, Kowa Women in Steppe, Zeiss BirdLife Malta - you rock!

Special thanks to COTF organiser Jonathan Meyrav for the amazing work he did this year, despite some very challenging circumstances. Hats off to the rest of my team at BirdLife Israel who contributed so much to the event, especially Alen Kacal and Noam Weiss. Shout out to Zeiss for sponsoring the race. Mark and Arad did excellent work behind the scenes - thank you. 

Fundraising hasn't ended - please donate here to express your #dovelove and save Turtle Doves in Malta, Cyprus and Greece.

See you in #COTF23!